Make ’em Care

I watched Lonesome Dove this weekend, half on Saturday and half on Sunday. I needed something epic and grand and filled with great scenery, strong emotions, and memorable characters. I needed something like this because, frankly, all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and not create, not read, not work with words in any way. I’d just completed an intense three-weeks meeting a deadline for copy edits. The original deadline had granted me five weeks. The new deadline gave me two. I begged for a third, and am glad I did.

Copy editing is important work. Here’s the final chance to make sure grammar is correct, typos eliminated, and any funky time, historical, language glitches are corrected. It’s checking and double checking and triple checking, and knowing that mistakes are still possible. For three weeks this was my life. I am not a deadline driven person. I am more of a turtle than a hare. To me backing away from work is as important as doing it. I like to take a walk, make a pot of soup, vacuum the rug, futz in the garden. These activities might seem like I am avoiding my writing, but I assure you they are not. They are the way I take care of myself, and return to the work fresh. These physical activities are the way to new insights. But I couldn’t work this way under the shrunken deadline. I simply had to plow through, and plow through again, and plow through some more. I turned the copy edits in on Thursday, taught a class that night and the next morning, and told myself there were only three things I wanted to do over the weekend: Take walks, go to church, and watch Lonesome Dove. I wanted nothing to do with writing for this brief recovery time.

But a writer is never very far away from writing. We’re always thinking about it. One of the things I think about when watching a movie made from a book is how did the book translate into such a story. How did it go from marks on a page to something so visual as a movie? Where did it come from inside Larry McMurtry and how did he take his vision and make it translate on the page? As a novelist I’ve been asked these same sorts of questions. Where did the story come from? Where do you get your ideas? My answers are, “I don’t know” and “I don’t know.” I’m not sure McMurtry would know either, but that would not keep me from asking the question.

What struck me most as I watched the movie though, was how much I cared about these characters, how invested I became in them, and how quickly. I cried when each of three main characters died. I cried over one character’s inability to express what was in his heart. I cried at the end when that character visited the town of Lonesome Dove again. The fact is, I became invested in these characters almost immediately, in the movie and in the book. And while I don’t always know exactly how that happens, I do know it’s necessary, and I do know that it requires a memorable character.

I’ve not been having an easy time with my own writing lately. I’ve been plying and prying at a story line for over a year now and not making much headway. As I watched Lonesome Dove I had the thought that writing fiction is a people business, but not a customer service business. The people are the characters. If I can just access the people in my stories then the stories will flow. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that. The thought gives me comfort though. It helps me scale down out of the big thoughts of theme and publication and a whole book. It helps me remember that the way into a character is through scene, and that I am simply trying to get to know someone. Writing a scene is entering his or her world, and getting to know them. It’s a slow process. I’ve been trying to speed it up. I’ve tried that before and it fails every time.


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